The other night I finally got around to seeing Apollo 13, and it was the most enthralling and satisfying film experience I’ve had in a very long time. Damn, I’d almost forgotten we used to make movies like this; gripping accounts of actually worthwhile true events, focusing on intelligent, mature, professional men working to solve complicated problems with life-or-death stakes.
The film is more or less the true story of the Apollo 13 mission, which suffered an explosion on its third day out from earth, requiring the crew to abort the planned moonlanding and try to return home with a crippled spacecraft, while back home mission command scrambles to solve the myriad of logistical issues involved. Essentially, they pulled off perhaps the most complicated and daring engineering feat in history – sending men to the Moon – and now they have to improvise a fix for it after a wrench got thrown into the process.
This isn’t a review, just kind of an enthusiastic gushing about how darn good this film is. We’ve got an incredible cast of veteran, top-of-the line actors – headed by Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, and Ed Harris – playing honest-to-God adults working their way through an extreme crisis, from having to do complicated math by hand while your air is running out to jury-rigging a way to fit a square peg in a round hole using a hodgepodge of available items, or trying to find the exact right start up sequence to maximize available electrical power.
Making it all the better is that most of the film is, apparently, very accurate. In fact, a lot of the dramatic license revolved around portraying the three astronauts as more tense and frazzled by the extreme crisis than they were in real life (they were apparently calm and collected the whole time, since you don’t get to be an astronaut, especially in those days, without having ice in your veins), or by simplifying and scaling back on the scope of the problem – e.g. the radio silence as they entered the atmosphere was apparently even longer in real life.
It’s also a reminder that knowing how a story ends actually has very little bearing on engagement. We all know how Apollo 13 ended, in fact that’s the main reason it’s a story worth making a film about. But watching it unfold and seeing what they had to go through to make it happen is not on whit less suspenseful for that. The excitement and suspense are built into the story, not the uncertainty, because it’s an inherently suspenseful situation and because the cast and crew do such a good job of conveying the tension on the part of the people involved. You might call this a historical engineering thriller.
Just…damn, I miss movies like this.
(Also, imagine my delight when, just after I was talking about Roger Corman on Friday, he shows up here in a cameo playing a senator. Corman gave Ron Howard his first directing job on Grand Theft Auto, as well as giving Bill Paxton his first film job as a set designer on Galaxy of Terror. Speak of the Corman and he shall appear!)
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The Apollo 13 command module is now in Kansas a couple miles from where I live. You can see it on display here.
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